With all those negative images floating around in my mind, when we headed to New Orleans early this summer to begin helping a family member move there, I was actually afraid of what I would find after being absent for more than 15 years. My childhood visits to this wonderfully matchless city were a scrapbook of happy memories staying with my great aunt while my parents enjoyed the food, music, and always-carnival-like atmosphere. Daddy took me back to New Orleans my junior year in high school to show me what he loved about the city that raised him and we took a riverboat trip and ate fresh shrimp and oysters at his favorite restaurant, T. Pitari’s. Twice in our married life my spouse and I returned to eat, explore the neighborhoods on foot and via the streetcar, visit the Audubon Zoo, and see a Monet exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Over four weekend visits in the last four months we found a cleaner, friendlier city where people you meet on the street look you in the eye, smile, and say hello. New Orleans is still facing multiple huge hurdles and the healing process is certainly not over. But she proudly displays a multitude of positive accomplishments including major strides in cleaning up local government with solid leadership, revitalized and accomplishing public schools, welcoming, mixed-income public housing, signs of energetic young entrepreneurship, and residents from all walks of life who are enthusiastically engaged in their community. One writer described New Orleans as a “former poster child for urban despair,” who may now offer herself as an example for finding creative and practical ways to overcome devastation and near death to other struggling cities.
Saints and Soldiers
New Orleans is a city incredibly united by the Saints, her professional football team, a part of the city’s rich culture since All Saints Day, November 1, 1966. It took the franchise twenty one years to put together a winning season, earning derogatory names for the team, including the “Ain’ts.”
When the Saints returned to play in the multi-million dollar renovated superdome for the 2006 post-Katrina season, tickets were completely sold out on season tickets alone. In the overpowering devastation of Katrina, the fans needed their team more than ever and this horribly injured city rallied around it and the new quarterback, Drew Brees, with raucous, unbridled support. Brees, who had consistently excelled at whatever he attempted all his life, was essentially on the unwanted starting quarterback list as he recovered from surgery for what was labeled a “catastrophic shoulder injury.” But he immediately provided unquestionable natural leadership for his team and his new home city.
The Saints made the playoffs that season and ultimately won the Super Bowl in 2010. Brees has since devoted his time and his money to the rebuilding of New Orleans with an unparalleled fervor as the Brees Dream Foundation provides resources and support for her seemingly unending list of needs — public schools, housing, healthcare, cancer research, neighborhood recovery, and a myriad of children’s programs.
Built in a former brewery in New Orleans’ Warehouse District, The National World War II Museum was not directly damaged by Katrina. But looters and vandals took their toll, tourists were slow to return, and the major fundraising for expansion of the museum which started just before Katrina had to be indefinitely put on hold. This exceptional museum, which includes artifacts, airplanes, boats, jeeps, self-explanatory exhibits, extensive oral histories of World War II veterans in their own voices, and the 4-D Solomon Victory Theater with a panoramic screen, opened under the direction of historian, educator, and author Stephen Ambrose in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum. It grew to its present scope when expansion was rekindled in 2008 with the energy and enthusiasm of veterans and lawmakers from across the country.
New Orleans proudly hosts this museum since the landing craft used in every major American amphibious operation in Europe and the Pacific was built there. Generally known as “Higgins boats,” these boats were built by the design and leadership of Andrew Jackson Higgins and they excelled at delivering masses of personnel and equipment efficiently and safely from ship to shore.
In 1938 the independent thinking Higgins owned one boatyard and employed about 75 people. By the end of 1943, his business had grown to seven plants and more than 25,000 workers. Disregarding the normal work practices of the era, Higgins’ workforce was the first in New Orleans to be racially integrated and included women, senior citizens, and individuals with disabilities, who were all paid equal wages. His workers were exceptionally productive and ultimately produced more than 20,000 boats during the war years.
Years after Higgins’ death, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, spoke of Higgins as “the man who won the war for us.” Legend tells us that Higgins and his employees were so important to the war effort, even Hitler knew him by name and referred to Higgins as “the new Noah.”
New Orleans — ‘Almost a Religion’
New Orleans’ multi-cultural collage of restaurants lures great numbers of her enthusiasts and some adamantly argue eating there is “almost a religion.” Many of the traditional, old reliable, family-owned white table cloth restaurants are still alive and well and offer incredible meals. In the Garden District Commander’s Palace has thrived for more than one hundred years. It is often labeled “the symbol of the New Orleans dining scene,” provides a slightly formal but not stuffy atmosphere, and has a consistent tradition of producing excellent chefs who have found success locally, nationally, and worldwide. In the summer, the perfect end to a memorable meal there is Rustic Peach Cobbler made with Chilton County peaches.
Mr. B’s Bistro, one of many offshoots of the restaurant powerhouse Brennan family, prepares bib-requiring barbequed shrimp “served in the shells with peppery butter sauce,” in the French Quarter. Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse offers local seafood dishes, such as grilled redfish with lemon beurre blanc sauce, which are as delicious as the steaks and calls itself a “French Quarter institution.”
Newer sure finds have made their own paths in the New Orleans restaurant menagerie in more recent years. Uptown on Tchoupitoulas Street, Dick & Jenny’s comfortable bargeboard cottage lends itself to the eclectic nature of the menu and the setting creates an ease for the guests as well as the staff. Their Eggplant Fritters served with fresh mozzarella and topped with basil pesto are worth enjoying at every visit. Mr. John’s Steakhouse on St. Charles Avenue might be seen as the perfect Mad Men restaurant by the young adult generation and those excellent steaks are simply seasoned with salt and pepper and topped only with melted butter.
Bayona, appropriately found on a quiet street in the French Quarter, is classy but not pretentious, the choices are innovative and creative, and they are served by a well-informed, obviously happy-to-be-working-there staff. A dinner of Chef Susan Spicer’s Garlic Soup and “Peppered Lamb Loin with Goat Cheese and Zinfandel Sauce,” will not easily be forgotten.
While the eating options in New Orleans can be overwhelming, perhaps the best approach is to start simple. Start with a sandwich. New Orleans’ classic, definitive sandwich is the Poor Boy whose popularity merits its own celebration — the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival held in November on Oak Street at Carrollton Avenue. This sandwich was born in New Orleans during the violent 1929 streetcar motormen and conductors strike.
Brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin, former streetcar conductors who owned Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant, promised to support the strike by providing free sandwiches to the striking workers. Collaborating with a baker, the brothers developed a new 40-inch loaf without the narrowed ends of the traditional French bread loaf. Bennie explained the naming of this over-sized, always popular sandwich. “We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended. Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’”
Dog, and Coulis
Off the beaten tourist path you will find Domilise’s Po-Boys, open since the 1930s, and run by Dot Domilise in a blue-collar neighborhood down by the river on Annunciation Street. The building and sign are so nondescript you might inadvertently pass the small place unless it is lunchtime when you will find it by the line of customers snaking out the door and around the corner. Domilise’s struggled after Katrina and had a long road to recovery which included replacing all the refrigeration. But loyal customers returned and curious new guests made the effort to find this eating landmark.
Once the line moves inside the door, you will notice photographs of Eli and Payton Manning as well as the menu decorating the walls, and long brown paper bags filled with the absolutely required just baked New Orleans French bread from the Leidenheimer Bakery which has been making this base staple since 1896. At the height of the lunch rush at Domilise’s, you take a number and order when called. The wait allows you to watch the sandwiches being prepared from start to finish as they are ordered.
Our order was taken and prepared by Dot who asked how we wanted our sandwiches dressed. She smiled as if pleased when my spouse told her to fix them the way she thought they should be eaten. Domilise’s lightly battered fried oysters and shrimp sandwiches, and roast beef with gravy are messy, require a stack of napkins, and you will lick your fingers without shame so you do not miss one satisfying taste.
On Freret Street near the Tulane University campus, in a neighborhood where the restaurants are providing key fuel for revival, Dat Dog serves German Pork and Beef Hot Dogs, carefully chosen, unusual sausages from as far away as Poland and as close by as Jefferson Parish, in addition to “Alligator Sausage (From the Bayou),” and “Crawfish Sausage (From the Swamp).” Condiments run the gamut from the traditional- ketchup, mustard, cheese, onion, relish, and sauerkraut- to the unusual- guacamole, wasabi, and andouille sauce.
While both Dat Dog owners are natives of New Orleans, and have known each other since elementary school, their career backgrounds are as different as their menu offerings. One is a lawyer who worked as an assistant United States Attorney for twenty two years. Since retiring, he has taught at Tulane Law School and managed his family’s olive grove in Greece. The other ultimately became a restaurant consultant in London and started the Real American Hot Dog Company there after inadvertently getting in the business by providing hot dogs at a softball tournament. This pair is well on its way to seeing Dat Dog’s hotdogs and sausages make an impact on the New Orleans restaurant culture.
In fall 2009 Chef James Leeming opened Coulis, a breakfast and lunch diner, in Uptown New Orleans on Prytania Street. Small and bright, this laid-back restaurant was the culmination of all his impressive New Orleans training which included Commander’s Palace when Emeril Lagasse was executive chef, Brigsten’s, several Brennan family restaurants, and Dick & Jenny’s, where he was executive chef.
Coulis’ omelets are large and satisfying, while the egg dishes, which include Eggs Benedict (“Jalapeno corn cake, pulled pork debris, poached eggs and hollandaise”) and Eggs Creole (“scrambled eggs, grilled tomato, sausage gravy”), are sure to please. The house made Corn Beef Hash is “topped with two poached eggs, hollandaise, and grilled mirliton,” but also stands alone as an excellent side dish. If you live in New Orleans, or visit regularly, Coulis merits frequent attention.
My recent visits to New Orleans were limited and only touched on a tiny part of what she has to offer. But in just a few days, she easily and adeptly defined herself to a returning visitor. Using her extraordinary medley of traditions and cultures, New Orleans confidently defies labels, adamantly refuses to be a part of any box, and passionately embraces every aspect of life from beginning to end. Under the most horrific of circumstances, these distinctive, permanent qualities allow her to maintain the depth of her unique soul as she makes changes and moves forward.